Kalie Johnson didn’t plan it this way, but she’s helping to restore oysters in one of the most challenging places in Virginia.

Three years ago, the Williamsburg native launched her own aquaculture business, Colonial Oyster Company, which raises hatchery-bred bivalves at the mouth of the York River. It’s been a good spot for cultivating shellfish, but shortly after she started, nature threw her a curve. 

Kalie Johnson (left), owner of Colonial Oyster Company, Jackie Shannon of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and volunteer Clark Dewing knock oysters off overgrown cages retrieved from mouth of York River. (Dave Harp)

Eighteen of her 250 cages became so heavily overgrown with wild-spawned oysters that she couldn’t get them aboard her skiff to clean off the hitchhikers.

Figuring that portion of her stock was lost, the 27-year-old oyster grower offered to donate everything in and on those cages to the Lafayette River in Norfolk, if she could only get help salvaging her gear.

“I’m just happy to put them to a good use,” Johnson said of the donated bivalves after the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sent a boat with a crane to the rescue effort. Once all 18 cages are retrieved and cleaned off, perhaps as many as 200,000 of her oysters may aid the comeback of one of the Bay’s most troubled tributaries.

Not long ago, some would have questioned whether moving oysters to the Lafayette was such a good idea. A tributary of the Elizabeth River, its 21-square-mile watershed is completely within the urban environs of Norfolk, where it has endured a century or more of sewage and septic leaks, stormwater runoff and industrial pollution. Oyster harvests have been off-limits since the 1930s, when health officials decided that bacteria levels made the river’s bivalves unfit for human consumption. 

Nonetheless, oyster reef construction has been under way in the river since the 1990s, led early on by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. In 2009, the local nonprofit Elizabeth River Project and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation joined forces to restore the ecological health of the Lafayette, and in combination with $76 million the city spent on upgrading leaky sewers, it’s been yielding results. 

Two years ago, those efforts reached a milestone when the state declared the river was no longer impaired by bacteria, meaning it’s considered safer for swimming — though it remains closed to commercial harvesting and aquaculture.

Bringing back the river’s oysters for their ecological value, one of the partnership’s marquee projects, is nearing the finish line as well. Later this year, the groups plan to complete a five-acre reef near the river’s mouth, seeding it with hatchery-bred oysters.

Volunteer Carolyn McCallister of Virginia Beach pours oysters and shell overboard to supplement reef created in Norfolk’s Lafayette River. (Dave Harp)Once done, that will reach the river’s 80-acre restoration goal set by scientists. And it will make the Lafayette, once one of Virginia’s most degraded waterways, the state’s first to count toward meeting the 2014 Chesapeake Watershed Agreement’s oyster restoration goal. The agreement calls for Maryland and Virginia each to restore populations in five Bay tributaries to help bring oysters back from historic low levels stemming from disease, overharvesting and habitat loss. Maryland completed its first restoration in Harris Creek on the Eastern Shore in 2015.

“We think it’s one of our best success stories,” said Jackie Shannon, the Bay Foundation’s Virginia oyster restoration coordinator, of the Lafayette. “If we can do that there, it can be replicated almost everywhere.”

In the beginning, it seemed like a herculean undertaking that could take decades. Undaunted, the two nonprofits began plugging away at building reefs, as did other partners in the effort, including the city of Norfolk and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Hundreds of waterfront residents also pitched in as volunteer oyster gardeners, and civic groups helped to raise funds to augment federal, city and foundation monies for the project. 

The partners experimented with different materials and methods over time, seeking to improve results and get more bang for the buck, said Joe Rieger, Elizabeth River Project’s deputy director for restoration. Some reefs are intertidal, built along the shoreline where the oysters are exposed to air for a few hours a day; others are in deeper water.

Natural oyster reefs accrete over time as new generations attach themselves to the shells of older ones, but a shortage of shell drove the effort to use alternative substrate on which to build shellfish homes. Some reefs were built with granite stones, while later ones have been made of crushed concrete. The groups bought shucked oyster shells from North Carolina to spread atop early reefs before seeding, believing that would give wild oyster spat a better chance to settle out of the water and survive along with the hatchery-bred oysters. But as shell prices rose, Rieger said they have tried conch shell and even gone without an extra layer of shell, with comparable results.

And while natural oyster reproduction has historically been good in the Lafayette, the groups elected to jump-start the restoration process by seeding the reefs with hatchery-spawned oysters, bred from hardy adult bivalves collected from the river.

To date, 11 reefs covering 27 acres of river bottom have been restored. Since 2010, the Elizabeth River Project has spearheaded most of the design, permitting and construction, while the Bay Foundation handled the seeding with more than 40 million baby oysters, or spat, on shells. The foundation also manufactured and placed about 1,500 “reef balls,” concrete igloos designed to catch wild oyster spat and keep them from sinking into the muddy bottom. Many were placed around the borders of the reefs, where a CBF survey found more than 2,000 oysters growing on a single concrete dome.

The restoration effort got a massive boost four years ago when scientists from Christopher Newport University and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science discovered 48 acres of relict reefs with oysters on them in the river, which count toward the 80-acre goal.

“We’d have been out here another 10 years if it wasn’t for that,” Shannon said. Some of the bivalves, undisturbed for so long by harvest, had grown shells as long as a man’s hand, according to press accounts at the time.

Jackie Shannon, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's oyster restoration coordinator, checks on reef balls in Lafayette River exposed by low tide. (Dave Harp) The two groups got $400,000 in grants last year from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to finish the last reef. It’s being fashioned differently, with crushed granite and oysters laid in stripes along the river bottom, with gaps between them. The idea, Rieger said, is to provide more habitat for fish, some of which like to hang out in the valleys between the ridges.

There’s evidence the new-style design is paying off. “Last year,” Rieger said, “we caught so many fish on the edges.” Trawl surveys along all of the river’s restored reefs have turned up 25 different species of fish, including striped bass, red drum, summer flounder and blue crabs.

Final reef construction should start in late April and take a couple months. Before the river can be declared officially restored, though, the reefs need to be monitored for six years to see if planted oysters are surviving and new ones have joined them. But reef checks so far have found that all exceed the target density of 50 oysters per square meter, Rieger said, and by a factor of two or three times.

Meanwhile, on a foggy February morning, with the help of the Bay Foundation’s larger, crane-equipped oyster restoration vessel, Chesapeake Gold, Kalie Johnson got four of her bulky, shell-encrusted cages out of the water, festooned with green algae, red sponge and crawling with mud crabs and other tiny denizens of the Bay.

Back at the dock, Johnson and some CBF staff and volunteers wielded rubber mallets to knock tens of thousands of oysters and shells off the cages and shoveled them into orange baskets for transporting. They smashed some live oysters in the process, but it couldn’t be helped, and there were plenty others that came off intact.

The next day at a public boat ramp in Norfolk, Shannon and a volunteer crew loaded the baskets on a CBF skiff and ferried them to their new home on a small intertidal reef near the Granby Street bridge over the Lafayette. 

Shannon cut the outboard engine and the skiff drifted slowly over the reef. She began emptying the baskets over the side, helped by Carolyn McCallister, a marine biology graduate from Virginia Beach looking to get back into the field, and John Wood, a retired United Parcel Service driver from Newport News who loves helping to restore oysters. It took them two boat trips, but in less than an hour, they had deposited 38 bushels of shells and bivalves overboard.

Low tide exposes restored Lafayette River oyster reefs along the shoreline. The Elizabeth River Project and Chesapeake Bay Foundation expect to complete the restoration project later this year, creating and seeding a total of 80 acres of reefs. (Dave Harp)Once the last reef is built in the Lafayette, there’ll still be plenty of restoration to do elsewhere. Work is already under way in Virginia on the Lynnhaven and the Piankatank rivers, and two more tributaries were recently selected for similar efforts — the lower York River and the Great Wicomico River. 

Rieger said his group and partners aim to forge ahead with restoration work already begun on the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River, even though it’s not been officially selected as one of the state’s five targeted rivers, and thus won’t likely be in line to receive significant government funding.

But on the way back to the landing in Norfolk that February morning, Shannon confessed to mixed feelings about concluding the Lafayette project after she’d invested so much time and effort there.

“I’m going to be sad to leave this river,” she said. “When we’re done later this summer, I’m going to jump off the boat.”